On-screen portrayals of sexual assault, violent crime, and other traumatic events can lead to feeling fearful and overwhelmed.

Last weekend I was at it again with my favorite TV detectives. But this time, my SVU binge-watching experience was different. Instead of cheering on Olivia Benson and clapping when offenders were caught, I felt on edge as each case played out. My heart was beating fast, I was biting my nails, and a sense of uneasiness and dread built up inside me. But I was still fixated on the show; I couldn’t stop watching.

As a proud homebody, one of my favorite things to do on the weekend is binge-watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I’m addicted to trying to figure out who committed the heinous crime and waiting for that shocking twist in each episode. I get so caught up in these marathon sessions that suddenly, I’ll realize six hours have passed, and I haven’t moved from my spot on the couch.

According to a 2021 study published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management, binge-watching correlated with mental health symptoms, including stress, loneliness, insomnia, depression, and anxiety.

That night I could barely sleep. I kept thinking about the characters’ stories and all the people across the country who have spoken out about their experiences with sexual assault, as well as all those who are still too traumatized to speak up. What used to be one of my favorite shows to watch for entertainment was now triggering anxiety and fear that I didn’t know I had.

Curious about what was going on with me and if it’s something other people are dealing with these days, I spoke with Carole Lieberman, MD, Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist, with a focus on violence in the media. Here’s what Dr. Lieberman told Health about why this happens and what to do when what you see on TV triggers you.

TV Can Trigger Anxiety and Depression

Dr. Lieberman said it is common for television shows to trigger anxiety and depression in their viewers. TV producers almost count on this reaction from viewers to keep them tuning in. “It may seem counterintuitive since it doesn’t make sense that someone would want to keep watching a show that makes them feel anxious or depressed, but they are drawn like a moth to a flame,” explained Dr. Lieberman. “When the show ends, they can feel reassured that they [the victims] survived and that the bad guys were punished.”

Popular television series like The First 48 and Scandal that depict murder, rape, and terrorism are more likely to cause anxiety in viewers. Yet even science fiction shows, such as The Walking Dead and Stranger Things, which depict death, monsters, and zombies, can be triggering for some people, Dr. Lieberman said.

As traumatic as these types of shows can be, Dr. Lieberman said research has shown that daily news broadcasts cause the most anxiety and depression, thanks to the heavy emphasis on violence and negative events. According to a 2015 study published in Psychiatry, people who increased how often they watched newscasts reported uncontrolled fear, stress, difficulty sleeping, and fearful thoughts.

More Shows Are Depicting Real-world Trauma

While we all know that television programs are exaggerated for dramatic effect, today’s writers, directors, and actors do an eerily realistic job depicting traumatic events that resonate with audiences because they’re derived from things happening in the world now. Considering the breathtaking graphics, special effects, and dramatic displays of emotion on fictionalized shows these days, it’s no wonder so many people feel like they’re there and experiencing what a character is going through.

“People who are sensitive, emotional, anxious, or depressed are more affected by these shows,” Dr. Lieberman explained. “In particular, if a viewer has experienced something in the plot line—like rape, or had a loved one die a violent death—they will be more affected.” If you are watching a show like SVU, you might feel a connection to or identify with a victim, which might cause you to feel their pain. You might worry about something similar happening to you or find yourself overwhelmed by recollections if it did happen to you.

How I Eased My TV-Induced Anxiety

One of the most effective things to do if you feel triggered by a particular program is to stop watching it entirely. After all, television should be relieving your stress, not be a cause of it. However, if it is your absolute favorite show and you can’t live without it (I’m speaking to you, Scandal gladiators), some steps can put you more at ease. Dr. Lieberman suggested the following strategies:

  • Keeping the lights on while watching TV
  • Sitting on a comfortable couch
  • Eating a snack
  • Cuddling with a pet
  • Watching with a family member or friend.

Dr. Lieberman recommended not watching emotional or frightening programs before bedtime—otherwise, you might be too wired with negative emotions to sleep.

As for me, I’m taking a break from my weekend SVU-binging and switching to Real Housewives. The shift from watching sexual assaults that are based on true stories to watching pointless but entertaining catfights has helped me feel less anxious but a little cattier, which is a trade I will gladly take.

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